04 December 2010

'Dear Father' Column at It Again

This week's St. Louis Review contains its usual "Dear Father" column, where a reader writes in and asks a priest a question about the faith. This week, the question is handled by Father John Dietzen of the Diocese of Peoria, the Catholicity of whose answers I have in the past called into question (see here and here). After the baptism question & answer debacle, the Review has almost exclusively relied upon Saint Louis Archdiocesan priests to handle this segment, and the content has been excellent.

Perhaps there were no local letters this week, but whatever the reason, Father Dietzen is back to "enlighten" backward Catholics.

This time, he cites to the discredited introductory notes to the New American Bible in order to reassure a reader that all that stuff about Adam and Eve is nonsense:


How do we relate the stories of Adam and Eve with the historical and scientific information about when humans were created by God?

Father Dietzen's answer:

We have no idea when or how God created the first human beings. Historical sciences, despite their remarkable modern discoveries, still cannot pinpoint when, or even where, the first "humans" appeared on earth. Nor can the Bible tell us.

To see why this is true, we need to keep in mind a few facts about Catholic understanding of the Bible.

First, we believe that the Scriptures teach "solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation" (Second Vatican Council "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," No. 11).

This means, for example, that we do not read the Bible as if it were a book of scientific history or anthropology. The truths of faith that God reveals to us in the Genesis stories of creation are many, for example. God created the world, including humans, as a free act of his love, and God desires to share his goodness and life.

As it came from God's hands, all creation was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). Later, sin, disharmony and suffering entered the world, coming not from the Creator, but somehow from sinful human pride. Yet, already a plan to restore the original beauty and harmony was in the mind of God.

In other words, we always need to approach the creation stories, as all of Scripture, very carefully to separate what is "for the sake of our salvation" from the vehicles of language and culture -- the images, allegories, fables, parables and other literary devices -- God uses to convey his messages of revelation to us.

The most recent exhaustive and nuanced Catholic document on the "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" is the 1993 publication of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, with that title. While inspiring the authors of the Bible, it states that God made use of all the ways language can express ideas. At the same time, God recognized the limitations of human language; no human words can ever adequately express any of these divine mysteries.

"Proper respect for inspired Scripture," the document says in its conclusion, "requires undertaking all the labors necessary to gain a thorough grasp of its meaning."

With that in mind, the (Catholic) New American Bible notes in its introduction to the first chapters of Genesis that the truths contained in these chapters must be clearly distinguished from their literary garb.

Forgetting those cautions can lead to some awesomely eccentric beliefs. During the 17th century, for example, Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland, carefully adding up figures from the book of Genesis, determined that the world was created in 4004 B.C.

That's the kind of weirdness that can happen when we try to squeeze the Bible for information it was not meant to give.


I guess a traditional understanding of Genesis amounts to weirdness when compared to the post hoc opinions about just which sections of the Bible are actually believable made by historical-critical scripture "scholars" of the sixties.

Unfortunately, this answer at least confuses the Catholic position, and possibly contradicts it.

The "weird" position that Genesis represents a factually-correct account of the creation of the universe and of man was espoused by none other than the Holy Father, Pope Leo XIII, who had this to say in Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae:

"We record what is to all known, and cannot be doubted by any, that God, on the sixth day of creation, having made man from the slime of the earth, and having breathed into his face the breath of life, gave him a companion, whom He miraculously took from the side of Adam when he was locked in sleep. God thus, in His most far-reaching foresight, decreed that this husband and wife should be the natural beginning of the human race, from whom it might be propagated, and preserved by an unfailing fruitfulness throughout all futurity of time."

Later, Pope Pius XII wrote in Humani Generis about certain theories of evolution. Allowing that a Catholic could hold the position of development of certain life forms--provided it is also held that this occurs under God's direction-- there are limits of this conjecture when it comes to human beings, and specifically Adam and Eve:

"36. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.[11] Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]"

Back to Fr. Dietzen's answer and his reference to notes from the NAB, to begin with, the New American Bible contains footnotes and prefaces that are sometimes antithetical to the Catholic faith. Don't take my word for it-- this link to a post by Jimmy Akin (a Catholic Answers apologist and certainly no traditionalist) describes just one example. In this article, he mentions the lousy prefaces to Biblical books as a big issue:

"...the book introductions to the NAB rush willy-nilly to embrace modern higher critical theories that, while some may be tolerable or even correct, are by no means certain. These introductions present these higher critical theories as The Truth, when in fact many of these are speculative at best. (They also have a faith-undermining tendency for many who are not secure in their faith.)"

The introduction to Genesis in the New American Bible presents as established fact the favorite theory of modernist scripture scholars-- that Genesis is a big stew of different 'traditions' mashed together for the purpose of presenting some theological truth, without any basis in actual human history. (Akin briefly discusses this issue in another post here). I don't find this particularly persuasive or inspiring, but maybe it works for a Unitarian.

For a more detailed rant against the NAB from a traditionalist perspective, this site does the trick, though it is not my style. Though, check out this brief excerpt:

"J'accuse: the NAB, in many places, daringly redacts, rearranges, or otherwise mistranslates the sacred text, and it does so in the service of the modernist critical hermeneutic which is revealed in its "perverse" introductions and commentary. These comments repeatedly contradict or call into question the Catholic dogma of the plenary inspiration and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture,8 as well as raising grave doubts about the Catholic dogmas of Christology and Mariology. The NAB refuses Scripture the submission which is due to it according to the Catholic saints: "Holy Scripture is in such sort the rule of the Christian faith that we are obliged by every kind of obligation to believe most exactly all that it contains, and not to believe anything which may be ever so little contrary to it."9 Indeed, it freely confesses that Scripture is wrong in places and freely disagrees. The NAB charges the Bible with contradiction, concerning which Oecumenius may be quoted as representative of the faith of the whole world: "For nothing could be contradictory in the mouth of the one and the same Spirit."10 Yet more, it seems that the NAB would have our Lord in ignorance and our Lady in doubt of her faith, which can only eventuate in Catholic readers doubting theirs (notes found at linked site)."

For those who are interested in the position of a different priest on the Genesis creation account, I urge you to read this scholarly article by Father Brian Harrison, a priest residing in the Saint Louis Archdiocese and whose credentials as a scripture scholar are well established. In it, he makes the case that the existence of the historical Adam and Eve must be believed as an example of an infallible teaching of the ordinary universal magisterium.

Let's hope that one of the many fine St. Louis priests takes over the Dear Father column for good.


Rory said...

Father Dietzen writes:

"The most recent exhaustive and nuanced Catholic document on the "Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" is the 1993 publication of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, with that title. While inspiring the authors of the Bible, it states that God made use of all the ways language can express ideas. At the same time, God recognized the limitations of human language; no human words can ever adequately express any of these divine mysteries."

I don't find his appeal from the 1993 document to be particularly helpful to the argument he is trying to make. The document was written in conjunction with, and in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Providentissimus Deus, of Leo XII, and the 50 years since Divino Afflante Spiritu of Pius XII. This "most recent, exhaustive, and nuanced document", is self-consciously taking its place alongside these papal encyclicals which placed certain limits to the bounds of which modern interpretion may go. Our current Holy Father writes:

"I believe that this document is very helpful for the important questions about the right way of understanding Holy Scripture and that it also helps us to go further. It takes up the paths of the encyclicals of 1893 and 1943 and advances them in a fruitful way."

I doubt that the document is what Father Dietzen wants it to be. It takes negative note of how the result of false methods is "that it impels some exegetes to adopt positions contrary to the faith of the church on matters of great importance such as the virginal conception of Jesus and his miracles, and even his resurrection and divinity." I would be inclined to add that false methods have led to denials of a belief in our first parents as well.

Is Father saying that human creation/evolution is a divine mystery that transcends the limits of human language? First, I didn't see any mention of the limitations of human language in the document, although it may be in there and I missed it. I think Father is wishfully thinking about a "spirit of the document", without realizing that his desire to break free of Catholic Tradition and embrace modern science on this question remains prohibited. Of course, everyone knows that God is ineffable. There are truths that defy description.

But I deny that the truth about the creation of our original parents, or the truth of the evolution of our species can be reasonably described as being hindered by the limitations of human language. "Science" has been effectively using ordinary language to express "the divine mystery of evolution" for well over a century.

In any case, Fr. Dietzen clearly denies the teaching of the popes already by timman who insist upon universal human origin from first parents. The 1993 document lacks any authority, even if it was teaching what Fr. Dietzen claims. From the preface:

"The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its new form after the Second Vatican Council, is not an organ of the teaching office, but rather a commission of scholars...It contains a well-grounded overview of the panorama of present-day methods and in this way offers to the inquirer an orientation to the possibilities and limits of these approaches."

Modern Catholics are reckless enthusiasts about the possibilities. Conservative Catholics are zealous protectors to maintain limits. True Catholic Tradition acknowledges that there is always a time for limited progress. I suggest that Father Dietzen has exceeded the limit, and proposed what is impossible to reconcile with the Catholic faith. I believe he has misunderstood Leo XII, Pius XII, and the anniversary document which leans upon their guidance in matters of biblical interpretation.


Anonymous said...

Why do we need an "American" bible? Can you imagine there being a Mexican Bible, Cuban Bible, etc etc.
Also another point. St Augustine in his commentary on Genesis has some interesting things to say!
"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, this is a disgraceful and dangerous things for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumable giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these subjects; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of the Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. (De Genesi ad litteram, Book I, Chapter 19) "

Anonymous said...

The good padre and by extension, the Review, missed an opportunity to spread the word about Pope Benedict's latest teaching on Scripture, Verbum Domini, issued on Sept. 30. Joseph Ratzinger was/is a leading Scripture scholar himself, and his introduction to Jesus of Nazareth gives a powerful critique of the historical method that ordinary people can understand. Verbum Domini expands on how the historical method relates to the Church's way of construing Scripture. Benedict does not throw out the method as a waste of time; rather, he wants to balance it with greater attention to how it fits in with the tradition of the Church, the "theological exegesis" called for by the Vatican II constitution, Dei Verbum.

"The Synod Fathers rightly stated that the positive fruit yielded by the use of modern historical-critical research is undeniable. While today’s academic exegesis, including that of Catholic scholars, is highly competent in the field of historical-critical methodology and its latest developments, it must be said that comparable attention need to be paid to the theological dimension of the biblical texts, so that they can be more deeply understood in accordance with the three elements indicated by the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum.[108]" (From Verbum Domini. I wish the Vatican's on-line version of Verbum Domini had page numbers; if it did, I would provide a page citation.)

While Verbum Domini does not appear to address Genesis and the creation of human beings directly, Father Dietzen and the Review could have performed a great service if they had applied the principles of Verbum Domini to that subject.

Thanks to Timman for stepping into the breach by pointing to earlier papal teachings that would have fit into such a discussion.

Jim Cole

Peggy said...

I am no fan of Fr. Deitzen either.

Fr. William Saunders of the Arlington, VA, diocese had the best Q&A column, Straight Answers.


A book has been made of his columns:


He does not appear to have published since 2006. I don't think he's deceased. EWTN relied on him as well. Just google his name. He's addressed tons of issues for the faithful.